2017 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing Honorable Mention
by Donna Coffey Little
The doctor held my children in a dish, all three, sucked them out with a syringe, prepared to shoot them into my womb. But he couldn’t get the ultrasound to work. He couldn’t see inside of me.
“Be careful,” I said, “My cervix is crooked. In the practice round the water all gushed out.”
“I’m in,” he said, and let them go.
Two weeks later, he called: “I don’t have the news you want.”
That night I dreamt my womb was a severed head. Medusa’s head, after Perseus cut it off at the roots. Not even looking, not seeing her. Her snake-hair writhed and hissed. But in the dream it looked like the life-sized Barbie head I got for my sixth Christmas. I combed her yellow hair and painted her plastic lips.
The year I was six, the mother possum died beneath the lilac bush. The helpless pink babies were still alive, cried piteously, rodents to the world. Six of them, like the flames on my birthday candles, all blown out at once.
It was the year my mother stayed in her room, drew the curtains, locked the door.
It was the year of my first communion. I wore white, a small bride with a veil. Took Christ on my tongue, too soon a lover.
At the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the incense burned, shook from silver cans by solemn boys. I tasted ash. And after Mass we followed stone stairs to the crypt. Moist cloister. As if under a white cake and frosting I found a rock, cool and solid in my mouth. Bones in the walls of the cave, a dragon’s lair. I could hear her breathe. I thought, Monster, Mother. I wanted to stay.
Less afraid of her than of the bright world above, blinking in the glare at my mother’s yellow hair and plastic sunglasses. The anger in the car, the obligatory trip to the arboretum. The lush azaleas, a vividness so painful my bony white legs trembled.
I covered my hair with a nightgown and stared in the mirror, practicing to be a nun. I made a shrine to the Virgin Mary in my room, a lace doily, a vase, tulips plucked from the garden. Prayed secretly: “Blessed art thou among women, And blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
When the doctor called to tell me the IVF had failed, I called my mother and wept over the phone. She kept saying, “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say.”
But she came for my hysterectomy. She stayed that Christmas, made me instant mashed potatoes with a raw egg mixed in. Brought it down to the dark basement where I slept.
Flowers to you, sleeping dragon, scaled mother. Flowers to the musky smoke you breathe, to the way you would have held me if your stone fingers worked. Flowers to you, waiting in the dark. No monster, when finally seen in a sudden flare of flame. Stalactites, stalagmites, dazzling and intact: her jeweled hair.
I am prone to the horizontal. I take to my bed, Freud’s Anna of the paralyzed legs in a white night gown, bosom bared and heaving, legs locked but the bottom of my feet tingling, a buzz in the center of my soles.
You desire my abjection.
Like when I studied the ceiling tiles, feet in stirrups, while you stretched my urethra with a drill bit. So kind, my favorite doctor, you held my hand.
“Do you have anal sex?” you asked.
“No,” I said. I told the truth, but I felt like a liar, like you had found me out.
Or when you opened the cyst in my vagina with a razor blade. It swelled and hung, a purple plum, the pad of a thumb, a salted slug.
It was trying to be a mouth. It was trying to scream.
A lump like the greasy wad of hair I used to hide at the back of my neck. Nothing for it but the scissors.
You said, “You’ve been thinking too much about sex. You’ve made yourself sick.”
You said, “Watch the knife,” swinging it close to my face like a hypnotist with a sharp watch. Ten, nine, eight…I fell asleep.
I felt nothing. I was saddle blocked.
When you pierced my bladder retrieving the eggs for the IVF, you didn’t believe me when I called and told you I was peeing blood.
“No, you’re not,” you said.
You were surly when you met me at the office that Saturday morning, threaded the plastic tube roughly up my urethra.
“Oh,” you said, when the bag filled with blood.
Each time riding a vinyl table, my feet in the stirrups, legs spread open and trembling like a spooked horse ready to bolt. Tender vulva exposed like a horse’s mouth, forced to take the bit. My rubbery lips flinch. I take the metal every time.
But once, on a blazing day, I rode a white horse into a muddy pond. He swam and I was carried. My slender body floated on his back, a spread white lily. I held his hair. My ankles loose and dangling. He wore my face. And whoever saw our drenched mane coil and writhe was turned to stone. All the Peeping Toms struck blind.
Pegasus was Medusa’s child, born from her blood when Perseus cut off her head. The white stallion spread his wings and flew away.
I was childless at my sister’s baby shower, sick with greed for the blankets, sheets and towels, the ducks and lambs and bunnies. What bait, what lure: the blue and pink trinkets, the small dresses in the aisles. I forced myself to skip the baby section at the Wal-Mart, but always snuck back to stroke the six- and twelve-month clothes.
My mother called. “Your cousin Mary is pregnant.”
My mother called. “My cousin Arlene’s daughter Ella is pregnant.”
My mother called. Her neighbor Nancy’s daughter was pregnant. Her friend Karen’s daughter was pregnant. She ran into my high school friend Tracy at the mall. She was pregnant.
Other women felt a baby kick. I felt a scar come alive and pound me like a hand inside the drum. I heard them hiss in the red room, white snakes writhing in a nest, a basket. Don’t play the flute. Don’t get them riled.
A doctor showed me pictures. The webbed nest of fibroids and cysts and scars. A mug shot: my suspect, my Most Wanted.
He said, “I don’t know how you’ve lived in so much pain.”
I think I see a face in there. Grainy, gray, head hanging. Lids closed, lips curled in shame or pain. Scars for hair.
What would her closed mouth say?
Fourteen in all, seven boys and seven girls. Mixed up in dishes by zealous doctors: a dash of sperm, the gathered eggs. Frozen, stored in metal drawers at Reproduction Inc. Implanted in my faulty womb.
Each one a small fish, a mermaid, tailed and finned. Each one swallowed whole, in a blink, like a fish in a tank, inconsequential, unnamed, flushed down a toilet or tossed in a biowaste bin.
No rite, no rite for grief.
Give me a net, a weir, a seine. I will catch them, pull them in. Words for hooks, my heart’s fat worms.
But caught, they only flop, stunned and dumb. They were never mammalian. Their eyes say Mother, let us go. We can’t breathe here. I throw them back, blood-lipped, in black water.
I will sit on the shore and wait and wait. Maybe they’ll return. Selkies, seals, dark and slick, kelped and rubbery, fins for helpless hands, lashed, accusing eyes. Muffled voices like a hand prevents their speech. Always a little further out to sea. Every year, a little less human.
When they are no longer visible I’ll occupy this cliff like a monument. Grow to stone while they become ever more agile and sinuous.
I am a rock with the face of a woman. My parted lips calcify.
Some birds line their nest with shiny things: red thread, a candy wrapper, tinsel. I was all dolled up for you, like a pink and yellow Easter basket. I painted your room light blue, painted clouds on the ceiling, painted an ark on your walls, all of Noah’s animals. I stenciled stars for you, lined your crib with rainbow blankets.
You were a deluxe feature, like a radio or leather seats. I would be the luxury model, all decked out with a baby.
I prepared the banquet, blew the trumpets, waved the purple flags.
You fell, not far from the nest. I swear I didn’t drop you, though I watched you slip through my fingers.
You’re a ten dollar bill I swear that I still have, still search all my pockets to find. Finally, there you are, intact, unharmed, like a baby kangaroo. I put you back.
You’re a sailor lost at sea. You went down in a storm no one saw or heard. I am the girl who sits by the window, staring at the sea. No corpse or grave to end the wait.
I will cut my hair, give up my beauty like a shame. What use to me is the body that let you go? I lug it around like a suitcase, packed with things I’ll never use.
“She changed her mind,” my mother said. “You have to cut your losses.”
I imagined a garden shears clipping my ten toes, one by one: this little piggy. Each toe was Thumbelina, stolen once again.
I kept dreaming that dream where my small pregnancy ended before my belly grew, and I checked it again and again, standing sideways in front of the mirror, seeking a trace, a bump, a proof.
“She’s just fifteen,” my mother said. “She’s a child herself. She doesn’t know what she wants.”
I could have been this girl’s mother, would gladly have kissed the back of her soft neck.
This girl’s mother drank with different men every night and locked her out for good when she was twelve.
“Cut your losses,” my mother repeated, her icy tone the only way she knew to freeze me and keep me whole. I thought about walking on toeless feet, pitching forward, falling. Like an explorer too long in the Arctic, toes lost to frostbite.
How many could I lose and still stand up?
The midwife and nurse and I were the only ones in the delivery room with Bethany when Cassie was born. Bethany was seventeen. Her mother hadn’t come and her grandmother couldn’t bear her screams and stayed in the waiting room. I held her hand as she pushed and sweated. She could have been my daughter. Her pale, freckled face, her light brown hair. She looked like me.
The birthfather did not. He was African-American. Bethany’s south Georgia family was not pleased. They looked away.
She wanted to tough it out. She told the nurse she didn’t want an epidural. By the time she changed her mind, it was too late. Nothing blocked the pain.
The baby was almost a distraction. I almost missed the slick black head crest, but the midwife called me over. I watched Cassie slide into the world, coated in blood. We both heard her first cry.
Their umbilical cord glistened like a jelly fish, spiralled like an old telephone cord.
The midwife handed me the large silver scissors.
“Will it hurt them?” I asked. She said it wouldn’t. But I knew the cut was a death. I knew I was wielding the knife.
The nurse hosed the baby off in the sink, wrapped her in a blanket, handed her to me first while Bethany looked on, still stretched out on the gurney.
I called my mother on my cell phone. “Why is there a baby screaming?” she asked.
“She’s mine,” I said. “This is Cassie.” I could hear my mother cry.
The nurse ushered me to a rocking chair, and I held her and rocked her while they rolled Bethany away.
Later, I stood with Bethany’s grandmother in front of the glass wall, located Cassie’s bassinet.
“I said I wouldn’t look at her, but I’m looking,” she said.
“You have to,” I told her, as if I knew a thing about it.
Bethany was in one hospital room, Cassie and I in another. When Bethany asked to see her, they wheeled her crib down the hallway. I wasn’t sure who I was rooting for. An hour later, they brought her back.
When I said goodbye to Bethany the next morning, the nurse was pushing her to her grandmother’s car in a wheelchair. Her shoulders were humped like an old woman’s. Her grief was in her neck, her eyes flat and dry as I bent to kiss her forehead.
The next day, I put Cassie in her car seat, prepared to take her home. But the nurse who’d just come on duty told me I couldn’t take her, because a baby can only leave with her mother, and I didn’t have the matching arm band. This woman called Bethany and told her she had to return to the hospital with the bracelet. It was her eighteenth birthday.
I moved in close to the nurse’s smug face, wanted to slap her, could easily have killed her. She squeaked along the corridors in those soft-soled shoes, ferreting out grief in the small square rooms. It wasn’t hard to find.
I pictured Bethany in her kitchen. The neat slice through the white plastic cuff. The scissors at her wrist. As a butcher holds a chicken by the neck. Snips with shears that cut through bone.
I didn’t see her when she brought it back. I still have the armbands, both of them, severed but intact, in a small box.
When Cassie was a baby she used to wrap her fingers in my hair as she drank from her plastic bottle, before words pried her loose. I used to bury my fingers in her spiral curls.
We both had curls—my thick, unruly Irish hair and her thick, unruly mixed-chick hair. We gelled it, braided it, bunned it, pony-tailed it. She liked for us to wear it the same way.
We spent hours styling and cutting her dolls’ hair in her “Secret Hiding Place,” the half-finished attic space she accessed from a hatch above her bunk bed. She had quite a collection. She had the “Just Like Me” American Girl Doll my mother bought her. Its mocha skin and spirally hair mirrored her own. She had the cheaper “My Generation” look-alikes from Target. Dozens of Barbies I swore I’d never buy her. Bratz dolls with giant heads and sleazy miniskirts and fishnet stockings. Monster High vampire dolls with fangs. My Little Ponies with long pink and purple and rainbow hair.
With her blunt children’s scissors, she’d snip and snip. I’d sweep the plasticky strands into piles, brown and yellow and pink all mixed together. She’d brush their hair with her own brush, style it to match our own.
Her best presents were the winged dolls and mermaid dolls. We’d watched all the animated Barbie movies—Barbie Mermaidia, Barbie Fairytopia, Barbie Mariposa, Barbie Pegasus. In all the movies, Barbie either has wings or flies around on an animal with wings or she is a mermaid. Sometimes both in the same movie.
The dolls from the movies did tricks. Their big plastic wings could flap, or they could twirl, or if you put them in water their finned bottoms swam. They had little mechanisms, little moving parts that made them seem real.
My Little Pony Pegasus also had wings. In Barbie Pegasus, Barbie and the winged horse fly to the Cloud Kingdom in the sky. They make a magic wand of light that frees Barbie’s family from the spell that turned them all to stone.
We used to play a game where I’d put on an oversized T-shirt. She’d crawl up under it, head nestled on my breasts, knees pulled to her chest, and she’d burst out, newborn, with a grin and a bounce, and take a bow.
We’d play another game where we’d line up all her white Barbies on the couch. We’d pretend I was at the hospital looking for a baby to take home. She would hide around the corner. I’d look at the Barbies on the couch and say “Look at those ugly white babies!” I’d fling them to the floor. “Don’t they have any brown babies?” I’d ask.
She’d pop pout of her hiding place and stand before me. “I want a brown baby,” I’d always say. “This one.”
She plays mermaid at the pool. She wears her Ariel bathing suit and goggles and flippers. She’s on the swim team, a better swimmer than I ever was. At six, she swims in the deep end. She dives into the eerie belly of the pool, swims in filtered light and silence within the stuccoed walls. Yells watch me as she does her pool tricks: front flip, back flip, touch the bottom. Cannon ball and belly flop.
She doesn’t want to be the Ariel with legs. She craves the mermaid life: fast and sleek in water, ocean for a playground, fish for friends. A hot pink coral stage, anemones and sea horses jamming, drumming, dancing. Sea creatures plump, hairless, sexless as a young girl’s convex belly.
We always argue when we watch The Little Mermaid. She insists Ursula is played by a woman. I always say Ursula’s deep voice must be a man’s. One day we check the credits. “I told you so,” she says.
And in some inky corner of my heart, I know she is right. I recognize Ursula, the dark-wombed mother, her undulating tentacles like snaky umbilical cords, like snaky hair, caressing the young girls with envy, luring them into the bargain that steals their voice.
In some inky corner of my heart, I know that I too am Ursula. I’ve bought Cassie the frilly dresses and make-up kits, the princess movies and dolls, the glittery crown. I’ve sold her princes and happily-ever-after.
I recognize Ursula’s jars. Embryos, fetuses, pickled and preserved. Helpless as tested rabbits, mascara on their blinkless eyes. Fourteen in all. All the dolls I wanted.
Let them go.
Let Cassie never know the knife that splits a girl in two, her strong tail into two legs and blood the cost and voice the cost, singing.
Let her be finned and winged. Let her go.
At the pool, she hands me her spare goggles. “Let’s race,” she says.
We dive off the pool’s cement lip, scraping our toes. I’d forgotten what it looks like under water, how far and clear I can see to the blue bottom. My slit legs fuse. I remember a muscled tail and going fast.
Dr. Donna Coffey Little is a Professor of English at Reinhardt University and the Founder of the Etowah Valley Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her chapbook Fire Street was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012 and her poems have appeared in CALYX, qarrtsiluni, The Honey Land Review, Sugar Mule, and The Florida Review. She is currently a fellow in the Think Write Publish program in Creative Nonfiction.
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